Dispatches From the R. Kelly Trial

Anyone Know a Good Forensic Hairstylist?
Notes from different corners of the world.
June 5 2008 10:39 AM

Dispatches From the R. Kelly Trial

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Click on the audio player below to hear Josh Levin read this entry. You can also download the audio file here.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

With the prosecution resting on Monday, the courtroom burbles in anticipation as R. Kelly's mole-denying, Little Man-analogizing, conspiracy-spotting defense wrests control of the trial this morning. The press and spectator rows are tightly packed, and Kelly himself seems to sense the occasion. Though not quite as distinctive as Yul Brown's Hypercolor number from Monday, the singer's outfit—a pinstriped honey-mustard suit, accessorized by a tie that appears to be decorated with exploding pastel sunflowers—is a refreshing break from the muted grays of the I'm Being Prosecuted for Heinous Sex Crimes Collection.

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Once today's testimony begins, however, it's clear that the Kelly defense team is a lot more entertaining—and probably more effective—when it's in attack mode. Lead attorney Edward Genson starts things off by calling a cousin, an aunt, and an uncle of the alleged victim, all of whom declare unequivocally that their relative is not Sex-Tape Girl. (All three also acknowledge that they hadn't seen the video until this week—a reminder of the many prosecution witnesses who, the defense has argued, were certain that the alleged victim was on the tape before ever having seen it.) Charlotte Edwards, the girl's aunt, says that the young woman in the video has much larger breasts than the alleged victim. Genson, perhaps rusty when it comes to questioning nonhostile witnesses, follows up by asking Charlotte if she'd ever seen her niece naked—the same question he used to undermine witnesses who claimed they were 100 percent sure they could identify the girl. Charlotte, unperturbed or unaware of Genson's mistake, responds straight-facedly that she had indeed seen her relative's nude torso, "when I used to change her diapers."

In contrast to Genson, state's attorney Shauna Boliker performs flawlessly. After a few perfunctory questions to the day's first witness, the alleged victim's cousin Shonna Edwards, she begins the show-and-tell portion of the cross-examination. On a giant screen 10 feet from the jury box, the state displays a screenshot from a video put out by the alleged victim's music group. Shonna identifies her cousin and band mate immediately. A few seconds later, we see a still from the 27-minute sex tape—if memory serves, it's taken from the very beginning, as Sex-Tape Girl is about to receive a handful of bills from Sex-Tape Man. Shonna says that she doesn't recognize that person. Boliker then has the photos displayed side by side. Both are profile shots, showing the left side of the alleged victim's face, her mullet, and a slightly puffy cheek. They look the same. "Is it possible that it could be the same individual?" Boliker asks. "Not at all," Shonna says. Boliker doesn't accuse her of lying or covering for her kin. She asks no further questions, eager to get the next witness on the stand—another opportunity to put the pair of poster-sized photos in front of the jury.

For the defense, a new day means a new theory. Today, it's the hair defense. After the prosecution finishes its slideshow, Genson directs Shonna Edwards' attention to the girl's scalp, as seen in a series of publicity photos for her band. Shonna notes that her coif is parted in the middle. The part in the hair of "that lady" on the sex tape, she says, is on the left side. Unfortunately for the defense, there isn't unanimity on this point among their witnesses. Charlotte Edwards undermines the hair theory, saying she doesn't detect a left-side part in the sex tape photo. I also overhear a pair of women in the courtroom who are unimpressed by this attempt at exculpatory evidence—a part is more akin to a daily choice, they say, than a permanent condition. While they're out getting a forensic lumberjack, perhaps the defense should scour America's leading research salons for a forensic hairstylist.

Leaving the tonsorial testimony behind, the defense resumes its project to discredit threesome-haver Lisa Van Allen. Jason Wallace, a law clerk who went to Georgia last month to interview Van Allen along with defense attorney Sam Adam Jr., testifies that Van Allen and Yul "Hypercolor" Brown asked them for a bribe. Though it's Wallace who's on the stand, he's only a minor character this afternoon. For a half-hour, Sam Adam Sr. plays the role of Yul Brown, reciting what Van Allen's fiance supposedly said as Wallace occasionally pipes up to say that everything sounds about right. It's the role Adam Sr. was born to play. Not only do the two men share a taste in loud jackets—the lavender coat the 72-year-old attorney wore Tuesday would've suited the part nicely—but the lawyer, in his full-throated exuberance, makes Brown's alleged scheming sound nefarious and thrilling. "She is pregnant, and we have to look out for our family," says Adam Sr.-as-Brown. "Lisa doesn't have to testify if things are made right," he continues. And later, setting his price: "Remember, we got that $350,000 book deal, so tell [Kelly and his associates] to come right." (It's unclear whether this supposed deal is for a Lisa Van Allen tell-all or a Yul Brown guide to exotic men's fashions.)

The prosecution's response: Adam Jr., Wallace, et al. were on a fishing expedition, determined to "create some sort of illusion of impropriety" as the trial began. Prosecutor Robert Heilingoetter also takes issue with Adam Sr.'s one-act play, which Wallace acknowledges is not a verbatim account of that day's events. Heilingoetter suggests that, if they had been interested in accuracy, the defense would've used technology to record the event for posterity. "Nobody on the defense team had access to a video recorder?" Heilingoetter asks. No, Wallace says, declining to acknowledge that at least one person at the defense table might have been able to loan out the requisite equipment. Perhaps even an extra duffel bag.

Adam Sr.'s performance would have stood apart on any other day, but on Wednesday he has competition from the Chicago Sun-Times' Jim DeRogatis. After failing to appear in the courtroom on Tuesday, DeRogatis arrives promptly for today's early-morning hearing, during which Judge Vincent Gaughan will decide whether the reporter has to testify. When defense attorney Marc Martin asks him a question—Did you retain exclusive possession of the tape? Did you alter the tape? Do you possess any other copies?—DeRogatis reads the following statement: "I respectfully decline to answer the question on the advice of counsel, on the grounds that to do so would contravene the reporter's privilege, the special witness doctrine, my rights under the Illinois Constitution, as well as the First and Fifth Amendments of the United States Constitution."

This happens at least a dozen times, and DeRogatis puts a different spin on each reading, like a musician riffing on a familiar tune. Sometimes he enunciates the reporter's privilege, other times Illinois. His best work, though, comes when he arrives at the word First, as in the First Amendment. Each time he gets to the final sentence, DeRogatis pauses, then half-shouts—"the FIRST … and Fifth Amendments"—like a television sportscaster making sure we all notice his trademark catch phrase.

The tightly wound Gaughan, shockingly, doesn't seem to find DeRogatis' performative style annoying. (He does, however, scold Adam Jr. for "passing out pop like you're at Wrigley Field" when the lawyer hands a drink to someone in the gallery.) The judge does think the mini-speech is getting a bit overused. When DeRogatis respectfully declines to answer Martin's query about what he does for a living, Gaughan asks, exasperated, "What are we doing here, I mean really?" (On the advice of counsel, DeRogatis does eventually admit to being the pop-music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times.) The judge ultimately rules that while the First Amendment and reporter's privilege don't apply here, DeRogatis' Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination does—he seems to buy attorney Damon Dunn's argument that a zealous prosecutor could possibly launch an investigation if the Sun-Times reporter admits to having, retaining, or destroying a copy of the tape. DeRogatis is dismissed without having to testify.

Gaughan, though, still asks for and receives the reporter's notes from his interview with Stephanie "Sparkle" Edwards, conducted within days of his receipt of the tape in February 2002. While the judge promised on Tuesday to redact portions of the notes to make sure that no source material was revealed, the Sun-Times went ahead and published the interview in full after DeRogatis' court appearance. This is a curious decision—there's information in the interview that could lead to his source, and protecting the writer's sources was seemingly the main reason why DeRogatis and the Sun-Times were fighting so vigorously to keep him from testifying.

The potentially source-revealing excerpt comes when DeRogatis tells Sparkle: "I'm sure that tape came by [B.H.]. Not directly. He's wondering about the police investigation." (The initials are in the Sun-Times' rendering of the notes.) It seems clear that the B.H. here is Kelly's former manager Barry Hankerson, who the defense has suggested might have conspired with Sparkle to create or distribute the sex tape. Hankerson's niece, Aaliyah, married Kelly when she was 15; when the manager left Kelly, he wrote a letter to his record label saying that the singer "needed psychiatric help for his compulsion to pursue underage girls."

Does it hurt the prosecution if Kelly's attorneys mention in open court that a disgruntled ex-manager might have been directly or indirectly involved in the tape's release? Perhaps, since that could further the defense theory that a shadowy band of conspirators was trying to bring down the singer. But perhaps Hankerson's involvement gives the tape some authenticity, considering that he's someone with ready access to the singer rather than a distant bystander like, say, Keith from Kansas City. Speaking of which, Keith and his associate Chuck have announced plans to alight in Chicago on Thursday. In an interview with the Sun-Times, Charles "Chuck" Freeman denied faking the tape. "There's more to this case than R. Kelly," Freeman said. "We're gonna have a press conference Thursday when we get here and everyone will see." Bring it on, Chuck, bring it on.

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